Extremism: The Accusation and the Reality

From “Islamic Awakening: between Rejection & extremism” (Yousuf Al Qardhawi) Chapter 1: Part: 1

Theorists argue that one cannot pass a judgment on something unless one has a clear conception of it, because the unknown and the undefined cannot be judged. Therefore, we first have to determine what “religious extremism” means before we can condemn or praise it. We can do so by considering its reality and its most distinguishing characteristics.

Literally, extremism means being situated at the farthest possible point from the center. Figuratively, it indicates a similar remoteness in religion and thought, as well as behavior. One of the main consequences of extremism is exposure to danger and insecurity.

Islam, therefore, recommends moderation and balance in everything: in belief, ibadah, conduct, and legislation. This is the straightforward path that Allah (ﷻ) calls al Sirat al mustaqim (الصراط المستقیم) one distinct from all the others which are followed by those who earn Allah’s anger and those who go astray. Moderation, or balance, is not only a general characteristic of Islam, it is a fundamental landmark. The Qur’an says:

{Thus, have we made of you an Ummah justly balanced, that you might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves.}2:143

As such, the Muslim Ummah is a nation of justice and moderation; it witnesses every deviation from the ‘straightforward path’ in this life and in the Hereafter. Islamic texts call upon Muslims to exercise moderation and to reject and oppose all kinds of extremism:

  • ghuluw غلوّ(excessiveness),
  • tanattu’ تنطّو (transgressing; meticulous religiosity) and
  • tashdid تشدّد (strictness; austerity)

A close examination of such texts shows that Islam emphatically warns against, and discourages, ghuluw. Let us consider the following hadith:

“Beware of excessiveness in religion. [People] before you have perished as a result of [such] excessiveness.” (Musnad Ahmad) The people referred to above are the people of other religions, especially Ahl al Kitab [the People of the Book]; Jews and Christians and mainly the Christians. The Qur’an addresses these people:

{Say: O People of the Book! Exceed not in your religion the bounds [of what is proper], trespassing beyond the truth, nor follow the vain desires of people who went wrong in times gone by who misled many, and strayed [themselves] from the even Way.}

Muslims have therefore been warned not to follow in their steps: he who learns from the mistakes of others indeed lives a happier life. Furthermore, the reason behind the above hadith is to alert us to the fact that ghuluw may stop up as an insignificant action which we then unwittingly allow to continue and develop into a menace.

After reaching Muzdalifah – during his last hajj – the Prophet (ﷺ) requested Ibn ‘Abbas to gather some stones for him. Ibn ‘Abbas selected small stones. Upon seeing the stones, the Prophet (ﷺ) approved of their size and said: “Yes, with such [stones do stone Satan].

Beware of excessiveness in religion”. This clearly indicates that Muslims should not be so zealous as to believe that using larger stones is better, thus gradually allowing excessiveness   to creep into their lives. Al Imam ibn Taymiyah argues that this warning against excessiveness applies to all forms of belief, worship, and transaction, and notes that since the Christians are more excessive in faith and in practice than any other sect, Allah (ﷻ) admonishes them in   the Qur’an. {Do not exceed the limits of your religion.} 4-171

“Ruined were those who indulged in tanattu” (Sahih Muslim) And he [the Prophet (ﷺ)] repeated this   thrice. Imam al Nawawi said that the people referred to here, “those indulging in tanattu:” i.e. those who go beyond the limit in their utterance as well as in their action. Evidently the above two ahadith emphatically assert that the consequence of excessiveness and zealotry will be the complete loss of this life and of the Hereafter.

The Prophet (ﷺ) used to say: “Do not overburden yourselves, lest you perish. People [before you] overburdened themselves and perished. Their remains are found in hermitages and monasteries.”  

Indeed, Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) always condemned any tendency toward religious excessiveness. He cautioned those of his companions who were excessive in ibadah, or who were too ascetic, especially when this went beyond the moderate Islamic position. Islam seeks to create a balance between the needs of the body and those of the soul, between the right of man to live life to its full, and the right of the Creator to be worshipped by man; which is also man’s raison dieter.

Islam has laid down certain forms of `ibadah to purify the human being both spiritually and materially, individually and collectively, thereby establishing a harmonious community in which feelings of brotherhood and solidarity rule, and without hindering man’s duty to build culture and civilization. The obligatory duties such as salah, zakah, siyam and hajj are simultaneously personal as well as social forms of ibadah. While performing these obligations, a Muslim is neither cut off from the mainstream of life nor is he alienated from his community. On the contrary, his ties are emotionally and practically strengthened. This is the reason why Islam   did not prescribe monasticism, a practice which requires alienation and seclusion, thus preventing man from enjoying the blessings and al tayyibat of normal life and from sharing in its development and promotion.

Islam considers the whole earth a field for religious practice; or the very business of religion. Islam also considers work a form of ibadah and a jihad when one’s intention is genuinely committed to the service of Allah (ﷻ). As a result, Islam neither approves of the pursuit of spirituality at the expense of materialism nor of the tendency to “purify the soul” by neglecting and punishing the body, which other religions and philosophies prescribe and advocate. This is made very clear in the Qur’an: 

{Our Lord! Give us good in this world and good in the Hereafter},

as well as in the following hadith “O, Allah, set right for me my religion which is the safeguard of my affairs; and set right for me the affairs of my [life in this] world wherein is my living;  and set right for me my hereafter on which depends my afterlife; and make life for me [a source] of abundance for every good and make my death a source of comfort for me  protecting me against every evil;” and: “Your body has a right over you.”

Moreover, the Qur’an disapproves of and rejects the tendency to prohibit tayyibat and beautification zinah, which Allah taala has provided for his servants. In a verse revealed in Makkah, Allah (ﷻ) says:

{O Children of Adam! Wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer. Eat and drink, but waste not by excess, for Allah loves not those who waste. Say: who has forbidden the beautiful gifts of Allah which He has produced for His servants, and the things clean and pure which He has provided for sustenance?}

In another surah, revealed in Madinah, Allah (ﷻ) addresses the believers in the same way:

{O you who believe! Make not unlawful the good things which Allah has made lawful for you. But commit no excess, for Allah does not like those given to excess. Eat of the things which Allah has provided you, lawful and good, but fear Allah, in Whom you believe.}

These ayat explain to the believers the true Islamic way of enjoying tayyibat and of resisting the excessiveness found in other religions. It is reported that the situational context for the revelation of these two ayat was when a group of the Prophet’s companions decided to castrate themselves and to roam the land like monks. Ibn ‘Abbas (ra`a)’ also reported: “A man came upon the Prophet (ﷺ) and said, ‘O Messenger of Allah, whenever I eat of this meat I [always] have a desire to make love, therefore, I have decided to abstain from eating meat.” Consequently, the ayat were revealed.

Narrated Anas ibn Malik (ra`a): A group of men came to the houses of the wives of the Prophet (ﷺ) asking about his ibadah, and when they were informed about that, they considered their ibadah insufficient. One of them said, ‘I will offer Salah throughout the night forever.’ The other said, ‘I will do siyam throughout the year and will not break my siyam. Allah’s Messenger came to them and said, “By Allah, I am more submissive to Allah and more afraid of him than you; yet I do siyam and I break my siyam, I sleep and do night salah and I also marry women. So, he who does not follow my sunnah is not with me [i.e. not one of my followers].”

The Prophet’s Sunnah signifies his understanding of the faith and its application; i.e. his duty toward his Lord, himself, his family, and his followers – giving each the due right in a balanced and moderate way.

“Beware of excessiveness in religion. [People] before you have perished as a result of [such] excessiveness.” (Musnad Ahmad)

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